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Sometimes You Can’t Change Behavior

Beverly Flaxington is a practice management consultant. She answers questions from advisors facing human resource issues. To submit yours, email us here.

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Dear Bev,

I appreciate your work and agree that our industry needs more human-behavior contributions. While we talk about behavioral economics and investor profiles, we don’t put enough emphasis on the behavioral problems and implications within our teams.

To wit, we have someone in our office who fills the COO role (and is one of the original founders). He isn’t a great salesperson, so he has taken over managing all of our operations, HR, administrative and other functions. He is under 50, but he is stuck in his ways. He won’t listen to reason on anything, thinks he knows everything and shuts people down literally in the middle of their sentences. He has a number of his own clients he continues to manage. They provide a great deal of revenue to our advisory firm, so he walks around like he is untouchable.

I was recently made partner (there are five of us) and I believe we should do something about his behavior. It affects people on our team and many people comment on how brash and abrasive he is. He founded the firm with one other partner who is still here (two others have retired) and the remaining partner is a see-no-evil-type of guy. He doesn’t like to hear negativity and overtly says he will not deal with conflict.

I’ve spoken to the other two partners and they want to confront the difficult partner. Can you recommend approaches that could work for us and give us some support in the process?

E.G.

Dear E.G.,

If you could hear me as I read your note, you would notice an audible sigh. I couldn’t agree more with your statement that we don’t focus on the human element enough from an employee and leadership perspective. But one thing I have learned having done this work now for 20+ years is that there are times where you just aren’t going to change someone. Certain circumstances conspire to prevent you, the person delivering the news, from being heard and the person who needs to hear the news from hearing and understanding.

You have circumstances working against you – his contribution to the firm, his long-standing position, the unwillingness of his long-time peer to engage in the discussion and, possibly, an unwillingness on his part to look at the impact of his behavior.

I know the saying, “If I had a dollar for every time…..” is a hackneyed one, but it fits given the number of times one of my clients has tried to “fix” someone who doesn’t want to be fixed. There is a reason every 12-step or self-help program asks you first to say you have a problem. That’s because no human being will make a change if they aren’t willing to admit there is something to change in the first place!

We can give up nagging, cajoling, threatening and punishing because unless we can help someone see how their behavior is hurting others, and probably themselves, they won’t work to shift it.

Is there any hope? I don’t know if you have tried recommending a coach for this person. Sometimes an outsider has an ability to see behaviors and describe why they are hurtful in a way that people on the inside are unable to do. Many people I’ve worked with have made dramatic shifts in their behavior when they have an “aha” experience and implement new ideas. That said, I’ve coached enough people to tell you there is also a percentage who will never change and don’t want to, so this isn’t a panacea.

You could take this partner out for coffee and have a one-on-one conversation with him. Reflect back some of what you see and ask him if he acknowledges it too. I’ve been surprised over the years at how many people are almost waiting for someone to call them out and once that happens, they will admit fault and sometimes ask for help. Again, my sense here is that this is a long shot but it is probably a long shot worth taking.

I’m hesitant to support your “intervention” idea where three of the partners (including you) confront this partner. You don’t have full support and you could be creating a divide of 3 against 2 in doing so. Then you will be like our elected leaders in Washington and unable to come to common ground because you will be so busy taking sides on topics. This isn’t good for your firm.

Try the coach or the coffee approach and see how far you get – I won’t be totally surprised if you write and ask for additional ideas. Unfortunately I won’t have many to give you!

Read the full article here by Beverly Flaxington, Advisor Perspectives

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